Sunday, January 31, 2010

People who live in Glass Houses

I found out all about her. She had grown up in this village. Left in disgrace after being impregnated by an infidel. She returned with her gypsy lover– she flaunted him.
She was everything I hated. I denounced her from the pulpit. Predicted eternal hell for her offspring.
She said love was not a sin, hate was. She remained unrepentant; she continued to attend my church.

She asked for me before she died.
"Father", she confessed. "You are my first-born child."
She died. I have to go on living. How?

People who live in glass houses... should not throw stones.

Drabble(n) - an extremely short work of fiction exactly one hundred words in length.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


A lot of women think I have got everything right. Two kids, a full time job, a consuming hobby (running). What most people do not know is about my other passions - reading, writing and photography - and if they know I manage to make time for all of them, they would think I am some kind of superwoman.

And yet, I know I am anything but that. Like all of them, I am just one other woman juggling with multiple roles, and trying her utmost to make the best of all of them. Where, perhaps, I am more successful than many of the women I encounter in real life is in getting the balance right.

Because, after all, it is all about balance. About identifying non-essentials and ruthlessly chucking them out of your life. About identifying the things that really matter, and ensuring that they get the mindspace that they need. About knowing how much control is possible in which situation and not seeking more than that.

I have a friend who is a freelance writer, a professional dancer and a mother of two kids the same age as mine. In the last two years, she has also written four novels. She's got the balance right.

I have another friend who is obsessive about cooking and keeping a picture-perfect house. She's made her choice- she only takes up assignments that fit into the time left over from all the other tasks that mean so much to her. She's got her balance right.

And then there are women who can't seem to decide what really matters to them. They want meaningful careers, but are not willing to make the sacrifices they need to make in order to have them. They have issues with reporting to people 'younger than them', choosing to forget that they took career breaks that make them effectively junior to the people 'younger than them.'

When it is so obvious that life is about prioritising what matters and balancing them properly, why do so many people struggle with grasping it? Or is there a different way - one that I have missed seeing.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Runner Girls - Fast, strong, sexy, and .... alone

After seeing my post-marathon status updates on Facebook, three women I know informed me that their husbands had run the half-marathon too. My unspoken question to all three was, "Why? Why your husband and not you? What stopped you from running too?"

I do know all three couples, and, in each case, the husband is the more athletically inclined of the two. But, despite two kids apiece, all three women women are fit and healthy. All of them work out a couple of days a week, and can, if they set their minds to it, prepare for a half-marathon. And yet, all three of them were happy talking about their husbands participating - they did not seek to participate themselves. Which is a pity, because in a lot of ways, running is the ideal sport for Indian women.

As a nation, we do not encourage children to take up sports, and we actively discourage our girls from taking up any sport. Since she hasn't played since she was a child, even if she wants to, it would be difficult for a woman over the age of 20 to take up any organised sport. But running is the great equaliser- human beings are genetically programmed to run, and a woman taking up running at the age of 36 is in exactly the same situation as is a man of the same age taking up the sport. Men and women of similar levels of fitness and stamina return comparable timings, and the percentage of woman successfully completing a long distance race is no different from the percentage of men doing the same.

Why then do more women not run? Yesterday, I met one of those women who's husband ran the half-marathon, and asked her why she did not take part herself.
"I can't", she replied before elaborating. "Just don't have the stamina."
"Neither did I when I started out", I assured her. "But it is something that can be built up."
"Maybe", she shrugged. "But I just don't have the time."

This answer I couldn't buy. If with a full-time job their husbands could find time to practice, why not the wives, none of whom was working? I do not deny that keeping house and bringing up kids is also full-time job, but surely it is not impossible to take a couple of hours off for running every week?

When it really comes to it, it is not so much a case of not being able to run, as much as it is a case of not wanting to do so. And I can only feel sorry for women who do not want to make time for it.

Running, to me, is almost like meditation. It is the one time when I transcend all the roles I play - mother, wife, colleague, daughter, friend - and am just myself. It is the one time when I can let the mind wander free. The time when I can think what I want, or not think at all. Apart from all the physical benefits, running puts you in touch with yourself, and that is something all women should cherish. I just wish the fraternity of Runner Girls could grow.

[The photograph is of me running last Sunday's marathon. And yes, the percentage of women to men was was disproportionate as it appears in the photograph.]
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Daddy's Daughter

I was always Daddy’s Dearest Daughter. Pampered. Indulged. Mollycoddled. Left to him, I would have been spoilt, but luckily for me, it was never left to him.
To him, I could do no wrong. I had always to be the best, and when I wasn’t, he never accepted the competition as fair.

I grew up, got married, made him a grandfather. But to him, I remained the little girl he would hoist on his shoulders.
He would get agitated when the kid next door cried- he thought it was his daughter in distress. Me, he hugged, but never really recognized.

In memory of the most wonderful father anyone could ever have.
I love you, Pops.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Modesty- a virtue?

I was having a chat with my boss the other day. As a prelude to telling me that I have to work on being less impatient with people, he started by telling me that I was the brightest person in the office and was often three steps ahead of everyone else. If he expected me to be pleased or flattered, he was in for a disappointment - I agreed readily.
"You already knew it, did you?", he asked.
"Of course. I'm not sure if it is three steps or one step, but I do know that I often have to wait a long time for people to catch up", I replied.
He laughed. "I really like that about you", he said. "you are so honest. Anyone else would have pretended they had no idea what I was taking about."
I shrugged. "Frankly, I see no reason why anyone should do that. Just doesn't make sense, specially when the other person knows it is only false modesty."
And yet, when I think about it, I realise that when you compliment a person, the reaction you are most likely to get is one of surprise.

Tell a person she is looking nice, and she is almost sure to reply, "This dress? But it is an old dress."
Most people would then veer off in the indicated direction, "You haven't worn it for a long time have you? Which is why I thought it was new", and the fact that the person is looking nice gets lost.
I, however, refuse to take the hint. "I didn't say I liked your dress. I said that you are looking good today. Maybe it is the dress, maybe not, but you are looking nice." Most people have no idea how to react to that!
Instead of going through all that charade, how much better it would be if the person receiving the compliment smiles and says, "thank you." You always know it when you are looking good, why not just accept the compliment, instead of insulting the intellegence of the other person by implying they are making a mistake in complimenting you?

Ditto with other things.
After an exam, when you ask someone how they have done, they are sure to reply, "Really badly. I'll be lucky if I pass."
When the results come out, it's a different story.
Me - "Why are you looking so glum?"
He - "Got only a C+ in the paper."
Me - "You got a C+ did you? Shouldn't you be rejoicing? After all, you expected to flunk."
He - "What nonsense! I was expecting at least a B."

I wonder if this is a universal trait, or one peculiar to us Indians.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Happy Birthday, India

Sixty years ago, the handwritten Constitution was was adopted by the Constitute Assembly as the laws of the land, and the Indian Republic came into existance.

A lot has happened in my country in six decades. There were the Nehruvian years when, as a leader of the Non-aligned Movement, India was a force to reckon with in the world. Then came the years when India strugged with internal and external deamons- when the vicious cycle of poverty and population sought to pull the nation under. Political upheavals, religious tension and parochialism did them bit too. And then the upturn of the last few years - where the nation has started discovering its sense of self, and has started looking for solutions rather than trying to pin the blame.

I have been lucky to be a part of the new India. An India which accepts that most institutions have failed to deliver, and which is looking for alternatives. The government machinery has failed miserably in providing primary education, but NGOs are working with government to meet that pressing need. India was once described as the land of beggars; they haven't disappeared, but many of them have morphed into small-time salesmen.

Affordable healthcare is non-existant, basic infrastructure remains a distant dream, the percantage of women in the workplace has gone up despite the lack of adequte childcare facilities rather than because of it, politics continues to be dominated by a few families. But, India, today, is an optimistic nation. A nation determined to succeed.

Even ten years back, Indians defined success as 'getting out of the country'. Today, it is possible to be proud to be an Indian in India.

Happy Birthday, Motherland.

[I took the photograph outside a station at Christmas time. The lady selling Santa hats is someone who, a couple of years back, would have been extending her palms for alms. She may make only as much money today as she did when she used to beg, but today she is earning a living. To me, that is progress, however small.]
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Monday, January 25, 2010


The entire office went river rafting last week. Eight to a raft, eleven rafts in all. I barely knew the people on my raft, had worked with none of them. With a five minute orientation, and the minimum of practice, we were off. None of us had rowed before, only I knew how to swim. But we had our life jackets and helmets, and we had an instructor who had been taking teams as inexperienced as ours down rivers for almost a decade. We were in safe hands.

The river was beautiful, the banks oozed tranquility, and the occasional waves that threw the raft about gave us thrills. We were loving the experience. But paddling? That was a different issue altogether. Though all of us put our heart and soul into paddling, we were all paddling at different speeds, and kept hitting each other with the paddles. Often, our strokes were perfect, but we were doing it outside the water. We tried matching our strokes, but to no avail. I was pretty sure the raft was moving forward despite our effort, not because of it.

And then, just before we approached the first stretch of grade 3 rapids, a large wave shook the raft and knocked one of us over. He was carried away faster than the boat was moving. The instructor yelled out commands, and we obeyed. Our strokes were synchronised, we were rowing in rhythm. Even before we needed to let our collective breath out, we had reached him, and managed to pull him aboard.

After the incident, we continued to row as a team. It was as if we needed a team member to go overboard before we could become a team. Maybe that is what teamwork is all about.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

To my son, the day he turns four

You pretend to be so self-contained. Give the impression of not caring about what people think. And yet you care desperately. Your mother’s approval means more to you than anything else.

You never let up an opportunity to fight with your brother. You want everything that he has, even the things you hate. And yet, when he gets a scolding, you get more upset than him. When he is in trouble, you fly to his rescue.

Your independence exasperates me, your affection overwhelms me. I know you expect a lot from me. Darling, I hope I never let you down.
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Saturday, January 23, 2010


Many months back, when I was feeling particularly down, I picked up Lance Armstrong's autobiography and was so inspired by it, I wanted to do my big by wearing the yellow LIVESTRONG band. I knew they were marketed by Nike, but when I went to the nearest Nike outlet, not only did I not find the band, they seemed unaware of the existance of any such thing. Perhaps I could ask someone who was going abroad to get one for me. I let the matter rest.

A couple of months later, I saw a collegue from another office wearing the wristband. When I asked her where she got it from, she told me that she had been given a pack of five bands of which she had given away only three. She promised to get me a band the next time she came to my office. She came quite a few times after that, but never remembered. The last time I met her, she exclaimed, "Oh god, I have forgotten again."
"That's okay", I assured her. "When it is my time to get the band, I will get it."
"No, didi. I will send it to you through someone else."
"Oh no, don't do that. I would like it more if you give me the band than if you send it to me."
That had been three weeks back.

We had a staff day on Wednesday, and the moment she saw me, she slipped the yellow LIVESTRONG band onto my wrist. "This is for completing the marathon", she said. "When I heard about it, I knew I could not delay giving you the band."

I could not think of a better way of commemorating the completion of the marathon than by sporting a brand new LIVESTRONG band. Even though I was not consciously thinking of Lance Armstrong that day, he is virtually the paton saint of endurance atheletes.

"Didn't I always tell you that the band would come to me when the time was right?", I asked her after giving her a hug. "There could not have been better time, could there?"
I could have got the band from her two months, two weeks, or two days back, and I would have cherished it. Instead I got it at a time when it was invested with more meaning than it could at any other time. Is there any reason for me to not believe in Destiny.

Friday, January 22, 2010

How Education?

What do you see when you see this bare-backed child playing on the street?

Most people would not even see the child – in a nation of over a billion people, you train yourself not to notice individuals unless you know them or want something from them - but some like my husband do. And when they do, they see poverty, they see the need for someone to do something for children like him. “Isn’t there some NGO that works with children like him”, he constantly asks. If he found one, he would probably make a donation to them.
And yet, when I see the boy, I do not see poverty. I see a boy playing creatively with what he has. I see a boy who is secure in the love of his family. I see a boy who is fed daily. I see a boy who has the occasional treat when his family saves up for it.
How do I know so much about the boy? Because I can see that while the boy is not at school, he is not at work either. And the fact that he is not working proves that his family can afford to feed him. He is probably the child of the people who dig trenches for laying down cables- they do not stay in one place long enough to enable their child to go to school, but they are not so badly off that they need their child to work.
He doesn’t need our charity. But he doesn’t have much of a future either. He is functionally illiterate and the best he can hope for is to get a job similar to the one that his father has. It is not much of a job, but unless he can learn to read, write and count, he would never be qualified to do much else.
A curriculum has been developed to enable giving him a basic education outside the formal system. But for that, he needs to stay in one place for a few months. I do wish people could devise a system by which he can transfer credits from one non-formal ‘school’ to another. Because without education, what future does he have?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Love means

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me? Once I asked her in what order, and she said "alphabetically". I don't know if considered me by my surname, in which case I would be there between Bach and the Beatles, or if she.......
I first read Erich Segal's 'Love Story' when I was in my
Sophomore year in college, and fell hopelessly in love with Jennifer Cavalieri and Oliver Barrett IV. I could quote huge chunks of the book, and with some effort would be able to recall most of the exchanges even now. A friend and I even had this game going - one of us would throw out a line, the other would give the next one, and we would go on till we reached the end of that section. Neither of us ever faultered, neither could find fault with the other's memory.

'The Class' was the second of his books that I read, and though I did not think it would be possible, I liked it even more than I did 'Love Story'. Doctors, Prizes, Acts of Faith - I loved everything of his that I read. For a very long period, he remained if not my favourite author, definitely one of my favourite authors.

Erich Segal passed away the day I was running a marathon. I missed the announcement of his passing, and would never have known if the friend with whom I used to have the 'Love Story' marathons hadn't written to tell me that 'a part of our shared youth' passed away. I haven't read any of his books in years, but hearing about his demise felt almost like a part of my youth being takne away from me.

Through his orbituary, I came to know things about him that I never did till then - that he was born into the Jewish faith (should have guessed that), that he was a classics scholar and literary critic, and that at one time, both the men in the race for the US Presidentship had been students of his.

Tonight, I am going to pull out a well thumbed copy of one of his books and cry myself to sleep. And one day soon, I will buy 'Oliver's Story' and 'Man, Woman and Child' - two books which I unexplicably put off reading. Perhaps I subconsciously knew there would not be too many more books, and that was my way of dragging out the pleasure.

Erich Segal
(June 16, 1937- January 17, 2010)
Requiescat in pace

I leave with perhaps my favourite exchange between Jenny and Oliver-
"Aren't you a good Catholic girl?"
"I am good, and I am a girl. Two out of three isn't bad, is it?"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


When I signed up for the full marathon in July, I was only thinking of the distance to be covered. It was only in the week leading up to the race that I realised that most of the race would be run under the sun, which even in January can be quite merciless. Every rational part of me was telling me to back out, but I refused to listen. Which is why, today, I can proudly say I am a marathoner.

One quote sums it up perfectly - "The miracle is not that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start."

And isn't that what my New Year Resolution Word, Do, is all about?
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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A different type of winning

When I joined a Facebook group called 'Hopeful Losers', this is what a friend had to say about it -
"I wish there was a dislike button! Am not for the term winners and losers! Not winning does not take away anything from the achievement - which loser seems to signify! "

For awhile, I was taken aback by the reply. Since when did joining a group of people wanting to support each other in their weight loss plans have anything to do with winning or losing, or not maintaining a sense of achievement. If you really look at it, losing weight can be a really big achievement for most people, so why the tone of the response? And the fact that she is a person who often
thinks like I do only complicated issues further.

Then the penny dropped. Not knowing the purpose of the group, and the play of words in coming up with the name, she had missed the entire point. And in any other context, losing is something I normally even think about. Not because I always win, but because I realise that there are degrees of achievement, and not 'winning' doesn't mean you have not necessarily achieved something.

Last Sunday, when I came home from the marathon proudly flaunting my medal, my older one asked me if I had won the race. I told him that in all probabliltiy, I had come last - not too many people were likely to have finished after I did. He wanted to know why I had been given a medal when I hadn't won, and I told him that only about a thousand of the 3,000 people who were at the start finished the race. I had got the medal for finishing, even if I did not win.

"But did you win?", he persisted.
"In my own way, I did", I assured him. "I did not think I could finish and yet I did. To me, that is winning."

The next day, I showed him the photograph of Dennis Ndisso, the Kenyan who won the race in a time half an hour less than I would take to run half the distance. He looked at the man for a few minutes, then said, "He looks like the man with the Golden Shoe (Usain Bolt, who blazed the tracks in the last Olympics)". I had to admit that there was some similarity. "He won the race. And you also ran the same race?", he asked eyes wide with surprise.
"Yes", I told him. I even saw him, and clapped when he passed by (the elite atheletes started an hour after us mortals did, and he passed us within 30 minutes of starting).
"You ran the same race as him?"
The hug my son gave me said it all. Even at six, he now understands there are many types of winners, and that his mother too was one of them.

When I thought about it, I realised my friend was right. "Not winning does not take away anything from the achievement - which loser seems to signify!" Not winning is just a different type of winning.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Is there a choice?

12:45 pm. The race was officially over. It was arguably the hottest day of the season. The sun was beating down mercilessly. The water-stations had run dry. Most people had dropped out when the finish vehicle passed by half an hour ago. We were on Marine Drive plodding towards the finish-line. A group of policemen standing by the side of the road, facing each other in two parallel lines. Race over, they were perhaps having a review session. I made to walk around them, but the policeman nearest me indicated with a wave of his hand that he wanted me to walk through the tunnel they had made.
It was a surreal experience- thirty men in uniform clapping in unison as I passed between them. “Race khatam ho gaya par aap chal rahen hain. Hamara salam/ The race is over, and you haven’t given up. We salute you”, they told us.
That spontaneous gesture summed up the marathon for me. It is not about winning or losing. It is not about beating your previous time. It has nothing to do with the other person’s time. It is about having the courage to start, and about having the will to finish.

When I signed up for the race in July, I knew I was just not ready for it physically. But I had six months to get there. When I got back to running after my hysterectomy, I realised I had lost most of the stamina I had carefully built up over the years. Running became a priority for me, and by December, I was as fit as I had ever been- the marathon seemed doable. But I hadn’t counted on that puny little virus that wrecked havoc within my body. When I was having trouble climbing stairs, the full marathon seemed almost impossible.

And yet, there I was at Azad Maidan before sunrise on Sunday morning, with 3,000 people as insane as I am. No matter how many times you do it, the adrenaline surge of those minutes just before and after the start of the race remains just the same. With everyone else, I started running, and kept running for a couple of kilometers, before I started feeling breathless. Eventually, I settled on a run-walk routine that I knew could see me through to the finish in just below the stipulated six hours.

By Chowpathy, we started seeing the first of the half-marathoners in the last leg of their race. On the Peddar Road flyover, I saw two half-marathoners keeping a steady pace. Something seemed different, and when I looked closely, I noticed that one of the runners was visually impaired and the other was guiding him with what looked like a leash.
Running itself can be full of pitfalls for the visually impaired, and this runner was among the top twenty in his race. “Nothing is Impossible. Impossible is Nothing” finally took on a meaning no amount of advertising could convey.

The elite athletes overtook us at the start of the Worli Seaface – in thirty minutes, they had covered a distance I was struggling to complete in three times that time. The runners from Kenya and Ethopia are poetry in motion, and this time, I was not only sharing a track with them, I was running the same race. Humbling thought that!

I was doing good time, and reached the 14 kilometer mark almost 15 minutes before my target time. but then the heat started getting to me. By the 18 kilometer mark, I knew I was in trouble, and by the time I reached the 21 kilometer mark, I realised that if I wanted to finish the race, I would have to adopt a very different strategy. Stopped running, and concentrated on setting a brisk pace walking. I was tempted to stop at the medical station before getting onto the Sealink, but resisted the temptation- I was not in any serious difficulty, and saw no point in making a halt.

The Sealink proved to be a killer. Five kilometers of the unrelenting sun, without even the hint of a breeze. No water stations. Definitely no stations offering energy
drinks. A policeman gave me a sip of water from his personal stores, but there was no other relief. I had been looking forward to running on the Sealink, but when I think about it, all I remember is the white median line on which I marched for nearly an hour.

With only a third of the race to go, I found myself part of a loosely strung out group of people in various stages of collapse, none of whom had any chance of crossing the finish line before the race got over.
“Keep going”, a voice shouted out to me.
“Is there a choice?”, I asked.
“I’m not sure about me”, he replied. “But I know you are going to finish the race.”
I couldn’t understand what he meant. Once you start something like a marathon, is there any option except to finish? What was the point of coming this far if you were going to drop out? You couldn’t really drop out, could you?

I got my answer a few kilometers later just after the 34 kilometer mark. A event vehicle came, announcing that the roads were going to be opened to
traffic and that if we wanted to finish the race, we should get off the road and onto the footpath. The jeep was followed by two buses crammed with marathoners who had given up. I saw a couple of people sprint to catch the bus, but the thought of abandoning the race never occurred to me. Had I dropped out then, I would still have covered more distance than I have ever done before. The climatic conditions were really bad. My fingers had swelled to twice their size. Nobody would have killed me had I given up. Forget anyone else, even I would not have blamed myself. I could have always come back next year when I was fitter and the weather conditions hopefully more conducive. But I had regressed to a primitive ‘hunter-gatherer’ stage. All I could think of was finishing the race. Nothing else mattered. I was not capable of rational thought.

The last kilometer marker I had passed had indicated 39 kilometers, but that had been a long time ago. “How much left”, someone asked me. “I don’t know”, I replied. Distance had ceased to have meaning.
“You are amazing”, someone else said. “All of us have been taking breaks. But you never stopped, did you?”
“No I didn’t.” How could I explain that I never felt the need for a break.

And before warning, we were at Flora Fountain. The Marathon Flame was burning bright. The flame that rarely leaves its home in Greece, but which had come to Bombay. I bowed my head for a moment- I was one with the ideals of the Flame. I started running. Very slowly at first, barely above than the pace I had set walking, but a little faster when I tapped into some final source of energy I never knew I had. I finished in a sprint. I had done it!
I had completed my first marathon! Nothing will ever be the same again!

And thank you everyone. Your wishes made it possible.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The last role

“Are you mad to run a marathon at your age?”, they asked.
“Not a marathon, a half marathon”, she patiently explained. “And I am walking, not running.”
“Same thing! What’s gotten into you in your old age?”

Perhaps she was mad! In her 82 years, she’d played many roles. Daughter. Granddaughter. Sister. Cousin. Niece. Friend. Sister-in-law. Aunt. Wife. Daughter-in-law. Mother. Confidant. Mother-in-law. Grandmother. Great-grandmother. Only one role eluded her- “Me”.

It took her seven hours to finish. The sidewalks were lined with people cheering her. Her great-grandchildren hugged her at the finish line.

Next year, she would attempt the full!

Drabble(n) - an extremely short work of fiction exactly one hundred words in length.

Photo by Adam Jones

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Tomorrow, I will be at the start line of the first marathon of my life. 42.195 kilometers! The distance seems daunting- I have never before attempted anything longer than half the distance.
I am insane. I haven’t completely recovered from my recent cold, and various health related issues have ensured that any training schedule I may have tried to follow never stood much chance of being put into practice. I should be sitting at home watching the run on TV. If I had to be there, I should be lining the route cheering the runners and handing out energy drinks. I should not have a bib pinned to my t-shirt, and a timing-chip attached to my running shoes.
I should not be at the start line, and yet that is where I would be, chanting two things – ‘finish the race’, ‘do it in less than 6 hours’. At my current level of fitness, I am unlikely to do it in less than 6 hours. Actually, that is a misstatement – at my current level of fitness, it is unlikely I will finish at all. And yet, I know I will never be able to live with myself, if I slink away from the challenge.
When I was having a crisis of confidence before my first race, a friend told me that no matter how long I look, no matter how I did it, I should finish the race. He told me the same thing before my second race, and before my third. The pattern was emerging, and when I confronted him, he told me that the secret to long distance running was to treat every race as your first, and to aim to finish. Nothing else really mattered- not your time, not your time relative to others, not your time relative to your best. The only thing that mattered was to get there, and to finish.
Which is all I would be attempting to do tomorrow– to finish. Because running a long race is a little like living- you have to do what you have to do, because that is the only thing to do.
When I survive tomorrow, if I survive tomorrow, I will let you know how I did.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The paper cup

Before boarding a suburban train, I picked up a cup of tea at the station the other day. I sipped it while walking down the platform, but when I finished it, I could not find a garbage bin in which to dispose off the paper cup. The train was late, so I walked up and down the platform looking for a garbage bin, but to no avail.

My movements did attract attention, and a railway employee who happened to be lolling around asked me what I was trying to do.
"Looking for a place to throw this paper cup", I told him.
"Arey, itna tension kyon leta hai (why are you getting so hecked up about it)", he asked. "phenk do na kahin bhi (just chuck it anywhere)". He indicated the rail tracks with a shrug of his shoulder - that was where he wanted me to deposit the paper cup.
"Isn't there a bin anywhere?", I asked.
"Chori ho jata hai (they get stolen)", he informed me, in way of an answer.

I could have chucked the paper cup on the tracks. After all, when so many people do, does one paper cup more or less really make any difference? But I couldn't bring myself to. When I tell my kids not to litter, I can't really be littering myself, can I?

I had the cup in my hand when I boarded the train. Before we were our of the station, my cup indicated that she wanted to sit on the window sill and enjoy the view. She sat very quietly during the entire journey. By the time we got to the station where I wanted to alight, the train had got pretty crowded, and both of us were crushed as we made our way to the door.

No garbage bins at that station either, nor anywhere on the half a mile walk to my office. The cup and me made it to the office at the same time, and she watched me with barely concealed amusement as I signed the attendence sheet and made up an official excuse for being late.

We had been through so much together, that I couldn't bring myself to chuck her into my bin. She sat on my desk all evening, and when it was time to go home, I very reluctantly laid her to sleep in my dustbin. It was like letting a friend go!

Think about it. If there were garbage bins in India, people would never get to make the acquaintance of paper cups!
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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gingerbread men

I had always know about the existance of something called gingerbread men, but could not count any among my list of acquaintances. And I was in no great hurry to change that either.
That state of bliss lasted till last month, when the status messages of most of my friends spoke about gingerbread men, gingerbread houses and even gingerbread Towers of London. One spoke about beheading a dozen of them to cope with Christmas stress, another put up pictures of what she claimed were a lopsided house. I could not bear to not jump on the bandwagon.
The internet gave me dozens of recipies. I chose one that I thought made the most sense. The kids helped with the measuring, the mixing and the kneading. It was a fun project.
It was only when I pulled out the rolling pin that I realised I did not have the one thing every recipie took for granted - a gingerbread man cutter.
Having made the dough, I improvised. Four custommade gingerbread men, two of which broke apart even before I took them off the baking dish.
To be honest, I wasn't displeased with the result. They could have turned out a lot better, but they could as well have ended up being a lot worse. They were okay as they were.
I'm definitely doing it again next year. Only need to decide whether I should invest in a gingerbread man cutter before that, or to continue the tradition I started this year.

And yes, this post should have been up a few weeks back, but I have got increasingly lazy about downloading photographs :-(
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stress? At Seven?

Last week alone, three school children committed suicide in Bombay because of studies related stress. All three were under 12, and one was as young as 7.

Seven????!!!! That is as old as many of the kids in my older one's class. That's an age where you are tentatively dipping a toe in carry over addition waters. An age where you should be learning to read and spell. An age where you are starting primary school, and getting used to this whole idea of education. At that age, how can anyone even think of taking their own life because they cannot cope with the education system?

When I first read about it, I was certain I read wrong. How could a child that young be under so much stress. But then, I remembered some of the parents I encountered in the last few years, and toned down my surprise. The mother who slapped her son in front of his entire class because she did not approve of how he had drawn a picture of a child brushing his teeth. My neighbour who has a tutor for her seven year old Second Grader, not because she can't monitor his homework, but because she feels he needs the discipline of three additional hours of schoolwork in a non-home setting. The mother who argued long and hard with her child's class teacher because she felt the child should have been given a grade higher than she had actually been given.

I realised I was wrong. Each of those kids is under a tremendous lot of stress to perform. When parents have unrealistic expectations, as they seem to, what is surprising is not that a seven year old child takes his life. What is actually surprising is that so few of them do.

I wonder if, after the recent incidents of suicide, people will start toning down their expectations? When only one child can top in a class, does it make sense to drive a child to do so and risk branding him a failure in his own eyes? When schools refuse to conduct examinations at the primary level, isn't it counterproductive to try and determine a rank by comparing grades with the others in the class? Does how your child perfoms academically at this age in any way in any way determine how well he will perform in his school leaving exams. And even if it does, isn't it better have a child who doesn't match up to your expectations than to not have a child at all?

As for me, I have discovered that leading by example works much better than lecturing. I prefer to read a book than watch TV- after his favourite show gets over, my older one cuddles up next to me with a book without my having to ask him to. Two months back, I replaced telling my son about his untidy handwriting, with giving him a cuddle when his work was neat. This weekend, he came home with a note from his teacher - "What happened? Looks like someone threw a magic spell on you. Excellent handwriting. Keep it up."

To me, that means much more than a report card telling me he's topped in class. But what matters most of all is the knowledge that he still considers me his best friend. When he is upset, he tells me so. I don't have to assume, like others do, that all is well even if it isn't. If more parents realised that, our kids may have it a lot easier.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One Word

As I have said more than once in the last couple of weeks, I am not really one for New Year Resolutions. But then I came across a different way of marking the start of a new year. Instead of making resolutions that tell you to 'DO' things, pick a word that would guide you through the year. A word that describes who you want to 'BE', and which therefore guides how you act.

It definitely made a lot of sense to me. But for the longest time, I could not come up with a single word that could be my touchstone during Twenty Ten. I despaired of ever finding that one word, so blogged about I would wish for during the year.

And then, out of nowhere, the word presented itself to me. The word that would get me to where I want to be in Twenty Ten and beyond. And the word is - "DO".

Too often, we shy away from doing things because we start thinking about consequences - "If I do This, I will most probably end up with That, and since I don't want That, let me not attempt This." We don't take on challenges because, in our wisdom, we decide we will not be able to meet them. We do not 'Do' because we get bogged down by all the reasons why we did not 'Do' in the past, and the reasons why we should not 'Do' in future. While all we really have to do is to just 'Do' it in the present.

So, that is my one word for the year - 'DO'. I do hope it gets me to where I want to be, which is not too far from where I am right now, but with a few additions.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Finishing is Winning too

One of my colleagues completed the half-marathon last year, and had set a rather challenging time target for himself this time. He was training to a schedule, but a month before the event, he fell ill and ended up missing two weeks of training.
He's decided not to run the race this year, because he knows he will not be able to meet his time target.
"So what?", I rather naively asked. "The point of the race is to do your best. You know you lost two crutial weeks. Why can't you set a new target for yourself and run?"
He was adamant that he would not. He had set a target for himself (which, incidentally, I am not sure he would have been able to meet), and since he would not meet that target, he would not even participate. He's now willing to wait another year, before attempting his target time.
"And what guarantee you will not fall ill next year?", I asked in a vain attempt to get him to change his mind. "Practically everyone falls ill at least once in winter. Odds are that you will fall ill next year too."
"I will not fall ill next year", he replied. "I never fall ill. It was a freak one this year."

The run is next Sunday. When I registered for it, I was a healthy woman who had a realistic chance fo finishing the race if she trained for it. Three days after I registered, I was informed that I would have to undergo surgery. Weeks of precious training time were lost, but dropping out was never an option. Revised expectations were the only concession I made to my changed circumstances.

Two weeks before the race, I caught a cold. The congetion is so bad that I pant after climbing up the two stories to get to my office. The one thing I should not be doing is participating in a long run, but it is most unlikely that I would give it a miss. I may be the last one to cross the finish line, but I am doing to do everything in my power to cross it on my two feet.

After all, like someone said, there are three types of winners - those who compete with themselves, those who cross the finish line first, and those who cross the finish line at all.

I am sure I know, but I would like you to tell me if you are like me, or like my colleague?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Parasol

Evening gown, stilettos, upswept hair, and... an umbrella? Could any composition ever be more incongruous?
She was told it was a parasol. Bollocks. Parasols were meant to keep out the sunlight – this one was perfectly angled to reflect the studio lights onto her shoulders.
She tried telling them they had to shoot outdoors, that nobody ever opened their parasols indoors.

She was just a model, she was told. She knew nothing of advertising.
True. But she had common-sense. Would people not rather buy an umbrella if the advertisement had the model splashing through puddles in a mac and wellies?

Drabble(n) - an extremely short work of fiction exactly one hundred words in length.

Picture credit - Parasol by Mark Spain

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What's your colour?

First thing in the morning yesterday, my phone pinged with a message from the Tart. It was a variation of this-

Some fun is going on…. just write the color of your bra in your status. Just the color, nothing else. And send this on to ONLY girls, no men …. It will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before the men will wonder why all the girls have a color in their status.

Pass it on & be sure to do your breast self-exams!

Mine was white, a colour I was almost ashamed to admit to after seeing the exotic 'shocking pinks', 'deep purples', 'leopard prints' and 'purple plaids' others had on. Three friends didn't have a colour to report and said as much. The most popular colour among my friends was the colour of the current season - purple - never knew my friends were that fashion conscious! Another made me feel good by admitting that her's 'used to be white - but alas the Chennai water. Now its sandy beach.'
Left no one guessing - the men caught on pretty fast. One 'decided to stay from facebook today. Too much colour to handle in a day', and another was 'amused to note the sudden colour-sensitivity on status updates'.

It was fun. It did tell me that I should go lingere shopping.

BUT, it also reminded me to do my breast self exam.

In October, the sister-in-law of a dear friend had to undergo a masectomy. The same month, a friend lost his wife to breast cancer. Any of us could get it. But so confident are we of our own immortality, we choose not to think about it till something reminds us of it. This fun campaign did.

Whether we love them or hate them, we are lucky to have our breasts, and not two scars where they ought to be. And even more we are lucky to be alive.

And if an irreverant campaign like this one makes us do what needs to be done, let there be many more of them.

And it is white again today- a granny white. But I am picking up a more glamourous piece on the way home today.

Painting by Simon Claridge

Friday, January 8, 2010

Short Stories

All my life, I've loved short stories. When I started reading, I devoured the experts - Saki, O' Henry, Guy de Maupassent, Katherine Mansfield, Conan Doyle, even Jeffery Archer. Even now, I prefer the short stories of Sherlock Holmes to the longer ones.

It was but natural that when I started writing, I wrote only short stories. As a writer, short stories brought out the best in me- no long descriptive passages, no detailed character descriptions, no long passages of high quality prose. Over a two year period, I must have written a short story a week- many of which did not deserve the space they occupied on my hard disk, some of which catch me by surprise when I re-read them.

It was three of those old short stories that I submitted to the Genre Wars Short Story Contest run by the Literary Lab. Sent them, and forgot all about them. My stories were decent, but I did not think enough of myself either as a writer or as a story teller to expect much from the Contest.

When I got two mails from the Literary Lab telling me that two of the stories were not considered for publication, I only briefly wondered about the third. Imagine my surprise when I got back to my desk after a meeting and found a third mail from them telling me that the third story was going to be included in their anthology.

This is the greatest high I have ever had as a writer. Anthologies were always the books I sought out in libraries and second hand book stores. Never really believed I would ever feature in one myself!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The shoes you wear

A couple of days back, I read about how the first question an actress tries to answer about a new character is "What kind of shoes does she wear?" Once she knows that, the rest of the character just falls into place for her.
An indulgent smile was my first reaction to that. I had just bought a pair or sparkly silver shoes that I had worn to work every day for the past couple of days. A collegue infomed me they looked like Cinderella's shoes, and I couldn't disagree. They definitely 'looked' like a fragile pair of shoes that one would wear to a ball. The shoes were showy, almost bordering on obstentatition, and they were definitely not 'Me'.
And yet, they were 'me', because despite their looks, the shoes were high on comfort. They were flat heeled, canvas shoes, perfect for running to catch a train, and for trudge home in. The shoes perfectly complimente my no-nonsense knapsack- only, they do not look as though they do.

Do you think the shoes that a person wears describes the kind of person she is? When writing a character, do you think of the shoes she would wear? I know I don't, but it would be nice to know if someone else does.
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Penning the words

The other day, when I was banging away on my laptop, my six year old sat down on the table opposite me, and ordered me to look anywhere except at himself. He had a pen and paper with him, and I presumed he was drawing something. A couple of minutes, he piped up, "Mamma, what is the spelling of picnic?"

By the time I spelt out 'enjoyed' and 'ghost', I knew he was upto something. Fifteen minutes of hard work later, he showed this to me-

"Bheem, Chutki, Raju, Jaggu, Kalia, Dholu and Bholu all seven are going to a picnic. And they enjoyed. Then they found a ghost. Then Kalia threw a stone in the ghost. Then the ghost fell down. And they all laughed and had lots of fun."

His first story. Not the first story he has made up (not by a long shot), but the first story that he wrote down on his own, and without prompting. I had been feeling slightly guilty about perhaps neglecting my two kids because I had been too busy penning my story. But no longer. If this is what neglect brings, neglect is what kids need!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fun, fun, fun :-(

In the normal course of events, I am a linear writer. Things have to proceed in chronological order - flashbacks, yes, but always in a different font, so I never lose the skein of the story. My short stories were almost always a set of snapshots - detailed events often joined together by passages of time totally unaccounted for.

When I decided to write a story about 25 times longer than something I would normally attempt, my technique remained very much the same. Each chapter was essentially a set of snapshots, with the only difference being that I did not have to wrap up each chapter with an end that was meaningful.

And when I wrote, I jumped around. The chapter written first, eventually became chapter 8, the epilogue was written around the half-way mark. I had four characters, each of whom shared almost equal screen time, but when I wrote, I often wrote two or three chapters of a single character on a trot.

Net result - chaos!!!!

Despite my belated attempts to track events chronologically using Excel, when I finally put the chapters together, birthday parties took place two chapters after they were first mentioned, people proceeded to the kissing phase even before exchanging the first flirtatious look, a weekend and a week passed before a phone call which was supposed to happen 'tomorrow' actually happened!

Editing !!!! Can anything me more fun?

How do you cope, or am I the only one ending up with so many inconsistancies, in a story that is pure chick lit?

And to give you something to look at, till I get some basis sense out of my manuscript, here's the Wordle of my entire story. Enjoy.

The immensely talented Elspeth Antonelli uses Wordle to track if she has been using words more often than they should be used, and other things as useful as that. For me, it is pure art.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

An apple for Sir Issac

Today's google doodle featured an apple branch laden with fruit. One fell down, and reminded me that Sir Issac Newton was born today!

Legend has it that Newton was sitting under an apple tree thinking of his next meal when an apple fell on his head, and made him come up with the Theory of Gravitation. A story that has been told and retold so often, nobody even pauses to think how anyone could have derived those equations with nothing more to go on than a solitary fruit making a short journey to the earth.

A purist will tell you that it was by observing the motion of the planets around the sun that Newton derived the laws of gravitation. And they would be right.

But like the bear that Teddy Rosevelt could not bring himself to shoot, the apple that fell on Newton's head has assumed gigantic propotions. Whether it is true or not, it is perceived to be so. And as long as seeing the apple makes people think of gravitation, if only for a moment, why not?

After all, wouldn't we rather say that we see through our eyes, than get into a long and convoluted story about images being formed on the retina, being carried as nerve impulses to the brain, and the brain cells registering the impression of 'sight'.
I am all for exactness, but sometimes being colourful is more fun than being merely exact.

And Happy Birthday Sir Issac. We see the world much better because you found giants who allowed you to climb onto their backs.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Kiss

[I fell in love with Rodin's The Kiss when I first saw it more than 25 years back. Here's my attempt at getting to the bottom of the story.]

"You will be immortal", Auguste promised. "Till Eternity, people will cherish your beauty."

I was reluctant. Auguste was firm. Jean Baptiste had insisted the model be only me. I did not want Jean Baptiste near me. After passion and promises, he always left me nursing a broken heart.

But my mother had tuberculosis. I needed money for food.

Auguste was no ordinary sculptor. He sucked out my essence, imprisoned it in stone. I'd ended up selling my soul for fifty francs. Jean Baptiste can never leave me again. But is there no life beyond this embrace? Will Eternity ever end?

Drabble(n) - an extremely short work of fiction exactly one hundred words in length.

This was written for the Valentine Feature of the Burrow

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Quest for a Beggar

On the first day of the New Year, I went looking for a beggar.
Don't ask me why I went looking for a beggar- it is a long story. A very long story involving my mother, a partial lunar eclipse happening my moon sign and an old superstition about giving alms after an eclipse to get rid of the negative effects it has on you.
One would think that finding a beggar in Bombay would be as easy as finding a man chewing gum on the streets of New York - after all, isn't this a country where beggars find you, rather than the other way around? Not! I walked in a direction which I knew attracted the less fortunate, but after 15 minutes of looking, I didn't find a single beggar. There were men with missing limbs selling handkerchifs, there were children in rags selling vegetables, there were destitute looking women selling neem sticks. But there were no beggars! Since the donation I was wanting to make was higher than the anticipated daily income of any of those people, I could have given the money to any of them, but I could not bring myself to insult a tradesperson by giving them alms.Since my directionless searching was not yielding results, I decided to be more strategic about it. Which is the one place most people visit on New Year's Day? The temple, church, mosque or gurudwara. That was where I should be looking - there were no beggars on the streets, because they were all begging near the places of worship. The realisation came to me in a blinding flash, and I walked on air all the way to the nearest temple. No beggars. Maybe they were somewhere else. I checked out four temples, one church, and three mosques, and drew a blank at all of them. There were women selling flowers, and men selling religious amulets. But no beggars anywhere.
I was frustrated at not being able to do what I had set out to do, but even more I was mad at myself. When I did not believe the stars controlled my destiny, why did I have to believe any of the stuff about the eclipse happening against the backdrop of the zodiac sign that was in ascendent when I was born? But since so many things had gone wrong last year, I did not want to take a chance on things going wrong again. Which is why I was rushing from one place of worship to another on a cold and dark January evening when I should have been home with my family.
I finally reached a decision- I would go home and make an online donation to a charity. Even after taking away the 3% the online platform would charge for the service, and the 20% administration overheads that any non-profit would carry, most of the money would directly reach a person who needed help. That was subverting the rules a bit, but the rules were written at a time when people begged. I started walking homewards, then remembered a tiny darga tucked away in a narrow lane near the train tracks. I remembered seeing burqua clad women seeking alms there, and I did find one old lady there, in who's hands I happily pressed the money and walked away after giving her a big smile.

India does seem to be moving away from being a nation of beggars to being a nation of small entrepreneurs. And despite the weary feet, my heart sings when I think of my trials of yesterday evening.

I had blogged about this more than a year back too.
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Friday, January 1, 2010

Wishes for Two Ten

This is the time for New Year Resolutions, but somehow, the concept never appealed to me. If you want to bring about changes in your life, why wait for a particular, rather arbitarily determined date to start? Why not today, whatever the day? And if you do not want to bring about changes, why bother to make Resolutions at all?

But this has always been a time when I like to take stock of my life. To sort through the accumulated memories of an entire year, before wrapping them up in newspaper and storing them neatly in whatever part of the brain that houses them.

And when I look back on this year, I am amazed at how much I have been through, and how far I have come. I've gone back to work full-time, and have still managed to spend enough time with my kids for them to continue to call me their best friend. I've been through a surgery that took out an entire organ, and have recovered fast enough to forget all about it. I've written a book, something I never even dreamt of attempting for the next few years. I've made time for friends, and have succeeded in putting personal committments as high as professional ones in my list of priorities. I've met some wonderful people, made a difference to a few lives.

What more could one want?

Turns out, I do want more. I want to learn Marathi this year, so I can converse with the native residents of the city I call home. I want to attempt a full marathon later this month, and prepare to aim for a sub-5 hour marathon next year. I would like to start getting better results from my camera. And I want to continue doing all that I got right in my life this year.

I want to be able to take on new challenges when they present themselves, because unless one attempts something, one cannot know if one can do it or not.

And most of all, I want to be happy and content. And I want everyone I love to be as happy and content as I am.

And that is my wish for you in 2010 and forever. That you be blessed with Contentment. Not the contentment that occasionally leads to apathy, but the contentment that drives you to push yourself further, because you know you can.

Happy 2010!


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